Turning 22: One Day More

The morning before the last day and, right on cue, the buds are out for the first time this spring.

He won’t be 22 for a few more days, but because of the April break tomorrow is his last day in the School District. The week is devoted to community trips to his favorite places – movies, zoos, museums. The staff, like us, seems a little bewildered that this moment has finally arrived. It’s hard to focus on the administrative details and preparation for the next environment; we are grateful to have found a place that not only has meaningful employment waiting for him, but people who are looking forward to his arrival. We may have worked for this outcome but it is still something of a miracle to all of us.

Following the instructions.

There will be challenges, but they are not the kind we can see from here. I see glimmers of anxiety. Last night I asked him to fill out the simple application form for the job training program. he was busy drawing and cast me a sidelong glance, saying, “I’m not very cheery about this.” He complained while filling it out but, as ever, was meticulous about it. Earlier in the day he was putting together a truck given to him by a thoughtful classmate. I watched him pore over the instructions – how many people do you know who follow the instructions from the outset of an assembly project? These gifts, these skills, are integral to his thinking. They will serve him well, always, and will help him make a place for himself in the world.

So much more to say, but I’m out of words. Transition does that.

 

 

I’m Repeating Myself About Scripted Speech

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Long before we had reliable scripts we had picture schedules.

Me: I’m going to take a shower.
Him: Carry on! (Pause) Do what you’ve gotta do, baby. (Pause) Was that the spirit?

I could almost hear him flipping through his mental Rolodex of proper responses.

I’m glad that scripted speech is finally getting its due in some quarters. It’s not that original speech is not valuable, it’s just that, in our experience, 99% of the time there is something to be learned from the use of scripted speech. It might sound random sometimes but it really isn’t. Even when it’s the same thing over and over (and over) it is still telling us something, if only that the brain is overstimulated and that a redirect is required.

And really, the rest of us use scripted speech all the time. The internet thrives on scripted speech. What is a meme if not scripted speech repeated endlessly? Clickbait headlines? Scripted speech. YouTube clips? Scripted speech. Pop music? Scripted speech. It can be the fastest way to get an important idea or emotion across. Still, I understand that the autistic person’s use of scripted speech comes from a different place and has more layers than our often lazy use of slang and movie references. It’s like arriving at the same destination via completely different routes; you’re glad you understand each other but don’t assume you arrived at your mutual understanding in even remotely the same way.

Anyone who tries to write for a living knows that it involves the selective use of scripted speech to hold the reader long enough for new ideas to break through. Original speech is the real challenge, and that is what good editing accomplishes. But I’ve also learned that if I try to edit my speech while speaking, it will make him intensely frustrated almost immediately. It is not only necessary that we understand his scripts but that we use them, when possible, to convey our own ideas to him.

I suppose my point in bringing this up again is that I find that even as I am more accepting of his use of scripted speech, it has now reached a point at which I am not sure if we have trained him or he has trained us in its proper use. After all these years it’s easier to identify the scripted speech and to know when it is leading us away from a happy place, but is it easier because we have been doing it for so long or that he is getting better at making his needs clear?

The challenge in this transitional period is to step back and see how obvious those distinctions might be to the new people who will soon enter his life. His current supports are so nuanced and so well established, we don’t really know how much work there is to help him master a language of self advocacy. This process of helping him maximize those skills is, I think, the key to a successful transition. It will be hard for me to step away from the role of interpreter. I’m already making a mental list of the phrases that signal anxiety and at this point I’m not sure if they are his…or mine.

All Muddled Up

Waiting for the fog to lift, literally and figuratively.

Waiting for the fog to lift, literally and figuratively.

More than the diets, more than the structure, more than the cognitive delays, I am flummoxed and frustrated by the sensory and auditory processing issues that come with our version of ASD. I was raised in a house full of voices and conversations, laughter and bickering, a barrage opinions trivial and and nontrivial.

While I require long stretches of silence I also crave conversation, and there are times when animated voices are something my boy truly cannot tolerate. Even conversation in muted tones can upset him if my sentences are not complete and he becomes furious with my “muddled up” speech at the merest hesitation mid-sentence. Go ahead, try it, try to talk in complete sentences all the time without pausing or correcting yourself partway through. It’s not always a problem for him, but it seems to happen a lot these days.

Keeping my distance.

Keeping our distance.

What bothers me most is that it is easier to have conversations when he is not in the same room and I hate what this kind of self-imposed isolation indicates. It keeps me from doing things I want to do with him, and makes me want to protect him from those situations that overwhelm him and make him want to stop the world – and me – from talking.

My April Fool

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There are many people who advocate for autism awareness and acceptance better than I.

As another April rolls around and so many campaigns go forward to integrate autism into our collective consciousness, I find that my greatest impulse is to share my undying admiration for my ASD son, who is growing into a delightful man. He is mercurial, goofy, meticulous, and single-minded. He is sensitive, intuitive, impulsive, and hyper-empathetic. He worries about death, separation and growing up.

Most of all, he is vulnerable. He is aware of a complex world in which many things are just beyond his reach and so craves sameness and routine. He wants those he loves to be always near him. The heavy mantle of trust he places on us is never a burden because within it is his precious heart that gives love so freely it makes us dizzy with delight. All his emotions are distilled down to their purest form, and there are moments when I am temporarily daunted and disarmed by the intensity.

He is, I have understood for many years, the embodiment of the greatest joys and fears of all humans. He is the precious natural resource we have been charged to preserve. We are honored by the task and hope to be worthy of it, and of him.

Autism Transitions: Parental Developmental Delay

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He sleeps on.

A boy comes home from a long day at Kindergarten, climbs into his mother’s lap and both fall asleep in the dwindling winter afternoon. That was today. Except the boy is 19 and he’s a Kindergarten teacher’s assistant. Still, his 5-foot-7 body folds into my lap as easily as a toddler’s, his head fits neatly in the nape of my neck and his sleep is as deep and blissful as an infant. When I close my eyes I literally cannot tell the difference in age, so complete is his ability to shift his weight and meld his body to mine. I have waited for this phase to end for roughly 18 years and miraculously, disconcertingly, it never does.

As we navigate the transition to adulthood, such moments become more poignant. He’s making it harder for me to let go by being such a perfect man-child.

Over the Christmas break I had to run to the Post Office one morning – I was gone for 20 minutes, tops. When I returned I was met by a flummoxed husband and my boy pronounced, very matter-of-factly: “Mom, Dad and I find life very difficult without you!” There was a medication question – I had forgotten to leave out the morning pills. If I had been out of town they no doubt would have figured it out easily, but my unplanned outing sent them into a tailspin and no one even thought to call me on my mobile. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that I’ve become such a fabulous enabler. The rewards of caring for this family are so epic that even when things are horrifying and dysfunctional they still make a good story.

After waking, tea with Panda. What part of me would ever want to miss tea time?

After waking, tea with Panda. What part of me would ever want to miss tea time?

Consequently, I’m doing a lousy job at making myself obsolete. As other women my age with kids the same ages as mine plan their next act I find myself trying to perfect the at-home game – which, under normal circumstances I was never very good at. My husband is a far better housekeeper than I am but he works and travels a lot – after 21 years at home I think I’m finally picking up a few of his good habits, but it really has taken that long. The good news is I can cook and I’m well-suited to dealing with the monkey wrenches autism keeps hurling into our lives. I’m grateful that my husband’s work allows me to focus on our family. Sometimes I allow myself to wonder what would have happened if I hadn’t been able to stay home. My boy would have survived but probably not thrived and I would likely have succumbed to some rural suburban mother madness (which is still possible). Maybe I would have revived my old career instead of trying to carve a new one out of the Internet, but even as I try to create new opportunities I can’t really bring myself to take my eye off that autism ball. Like the shoe that periodically came flying from the back of the minivan in years past, it has a tendency to smack me in the back of the head if I turn away.

So, yes, I am having trouble outsourcing my job so that my man-boy can be more independent, partly because he keeps me warm but also because I’m avoiding thinking about what else I should be doing. Even as I try to write on other topics, I am emailing job coaches and setting up meetings to create community networks for adults with disabilities. I’m tracking legislation and figuring out SSDI. I know what I do is making his life better, but I’m just not sure I’m ready to make his life better without me. I want to have it both ways, and I’m going to figure out a way to accomplish that. Later, after tea time, maybe.

Schooled by Autism: Lessons From Charlie Brown and Lucy

blog_lucy_footballI heard the familiar, beloved sound of Vince Guaraldi’s Peanuts music and then a voice from the study, “Poor Charlie Brown. He missed the football again.”

Dad asked, “What happened?”

“He tried to kick it and then he bonked his head.”

Dad insisted, “But why?”

“Lucy pulled it away.”

“Why do you think she did that?”

“I have absolutely no idea.” Then a long pause. He is a person for whom spite is literally impossible, I am pretty sure.

“Fear makes people do strange things.” And wisdom appears in the most wonderful moments.

The Miracle of Enough Sleep

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It is a breathtakingly beautiful early summer morning – sunny, cool, dry – and for once I do not have mixed feelings about being awake to appreciate it. I am not a morning person. Never was, never will be. I am awake because I have to be but I can also say that I have had enough rest. This is new.

Last Friday night I slept for 12 hours. I don’t think I’ve done that in the 20 years since I had my first child. We had an early dinner and I fell asleep on the sofa, moved upstairs to bed at 1am and then woke up at 8am. I was aware of bedtime routines and kisses good night but everyone seemed to know what they were supposed to do and follow through. After a week of 5-6 hours a night, that sleep was not only needed, it was transformative. I faced a busy weekend not with fantasies of a nap but with energy and enthusiasm and a sense of emotional flexibility that often just isn’t possible.

SONY DSCI thought about the parents who have gone for years without even those 5-6 hour nights I’m whining about, and I am thinking about them again this morning. Sleep deprivation plagues many people for many reasons. For those who are awake because they have a sleepless child who requires constant supervision, the exhaustion is complete and relentless. Even on nights when the kids manage to sleep through the predawn hours, parental eyes pop open anyway, expectant of the footsteps that may or may not patter down the stairs. Knowing that the child is asleep doesn’t mean going back to sleep for another hour or two. Usually, worry fills in until they do wake up. It’s a hard pattern to break.

For those of us who face the day bleary eyed and worn out, I hold out for the promise and possibility of the restorative power of sleep. We don’t create sleep deficits on purpose – many children on the autism spectrum have intractable sleep issues and keep parents up until all hours, and we use the few hours while our kids do sleep to do things they can’t get done when the kids are awake. It’s just as important for our kids that we are rested as it is for us – people who’ve had enough sleep have more patience and make better decisions. If you can find a way to accomplish that magic 7 hours of rest, it is worth striving for.  Jane Brody wrote an informative essay on the health risks posed by sleep deprivation – it’s good tool for advocating with family and caregivers to let you cobble together a longer night or a decent nap.

SONY DSCI can’t blame autism for my sleep problem entirely. My boy is a better sleeper than most; it is the other obligations (obsessions?) and the worry that keep me awake.  I enjoy the quiet, peace and dark of late nights. I love being awake when everyone else is asleep. Books and movies are more fun in the dark. For years I sat in the dark on the floor of my boys’ room, waiting for them to go to sleep. As much as that process was driven by necessity, worry and confusion, I genuinely loved those moments sitting (sometimes writing) by the glowing night-light and waiting for the steady breathing and gentle snoring that arrived with their slumber. By the time I tiptoed out, no matter how crazy the day had been, we were all in love again. I wanted to savor that feeling and not go to sleep right away myself. I needed some time to wallow in the normalcy of sleeping children and talk to my husband uninterrupted. Still, there were times when I konked out on the floor before they did.

One gift of adolescence is that it brings kids who sleep in, when school allows it. This break in our summer program leaves my boy in bed at 9am still asleep. I never dared to hope there would be a time when he would master a self-directed bedtime routine at reasonable hour and sleep in on a sunny morning, even with sun streaming through the skylight directly on his bed. It might not sound like a miracle, but in its way it is. It gives me time to write this, time to think up some structure for this unstructured day, time to appreciate the breeze though the open windows after a week of hot and humid weather.

Peace of mind and enough sleep – I don’t think I can have one without the other, and having learned this lesson (again) I am going to try not to forget it.

PS: This is my 100th post. Woot.

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Happy Father’s Day

Taking walks is a Dad-driven activity that varies in popularity among his children.

Taking walks is a Dad-driven activity that varies in popularity among his children.

There are a lot of ways to be a good father. I think the stereotypes around fatherhood are even more constraining than the ones around motherhood – and it appears to be particularly tough on Dads with kids on the spectrum because ASD kids often don’t hew to the traditional mold of father-son relationships. I’ve heard many stories of families with Dads who couldn’t cope with a child on the Spectrum, but am happy to report that I don’t know many of them. Most of the Dads I know have stuck with their families and done their best to support their kids and spouses through this unprecedented time in history when autism went from obscurity to a household word in front of their eyes.

In this world of Dads whom I have seen rise to the occasion of ASD in their lives, my own husband stands head and shoulders above them all in his devotion to, compassion for, and understanding of our boy. He understands what it is like to think in pictures, to read the emotions in a room without need for dialogue, to focus relentlessly on a single goal. He has supported me in my many unconventional pursuits down new paths toward better health and treatment, and sometimes adopted the treatments for himself. He appreciates the gifts of all of our kids, knowing them in a way that is decidedly 21st century even as he revels in a kind of Ward Cleaver image of fatherhood. He plays video games and likes to go on vacation to places where you dress for dinner. He loves Christmas, hates command performances, and requires infusions of salt air and extreme weather on a regular basis. He is loving, stalwart, industrious and hilarious in ways that only those closest to him can truly appreciate. He belongs to us, and we to him, and there isn’t much more you can ask from a Dad than that.

Developmental Dilemma: What To Keep

Part of me thinks that no one should ever have to outgrow Toy Story.

Part of me thinks that no one should ever have to outgrow Toy Story.

Ever since the 18th birthday earlier this spring, I’ve been in a state of emotional turmoil. It’s only a slight exaggeration. Now I try to make some sense of a teenager’s room that runs the gamut from Winnie-the-Pooh to Scooby Doo with everything in between. It’s a collector’s dream and a parent’s nightmare. I’ve learned the hard way that throwing the wrong thing out means I will be hounded eventually to replace it – it could be five weeks or 5 years from now, just long enough to make what cost me $1.99 in 2003 now cost $67.99 on Ebay today. I know parents who have purged their house of everything Thomas and Pixar to help their kids become adults but my problem is that I really am loath to replace Toy Story with the Man of Steel. To me, that’s just another kind of arrested development. More importantly, he’s not interested in that stuff – he sleeps soundly through superhero movies on a regular basis. He loves what he loves.

IMG_4800And the books. Which ones will he ever read? How can we know what will prove useful or interesting, just by waiting patiently for him to notice the ones placed where he sees them every day? To get rid of the easy readers seems mean, to get rid of the more advanced books seems pessimistic.

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Will he look beyond the action figures to the books behind them? Maybe.

Downstairs are the bins of paperwork that requires filing or tossing – one for school, one for insurance, one for general ASD stuff, one for transition, one for keepsakes and artwork that show developmental progress, or the lack thereof. But I only end up weeding things out I know are redundant – I just don’t know when a school or a court will need to see what we have and I’m afraid to get rid of something that could be a key piece of evidence of … I don’t know. And every bin or toys or papers brings a flood of memories and emotions that don’t want to stay on the shelf where I keep them. I am trying so hard to focus on the future that sifting through the past seems like a bad idea just now.

So I guess I’ll stick with The Wizard of Oz and The Sound of Music – at least they are live action – and wait a bit longer for the moment when we can at least move some stuff up to the attic. And we will know soon enough what schools, doctors, agencies and lawyers require and then, maybe then, we can let go of at least some of the past.

Remember Cats versus Dogs? They’re all in here.

The April 15 Post That Wasn’t

IMG_4098I was almost ready to publish a post on April 15. I just needed to load the fox photo. But I had an appointment, and on the way home the news on the radio changed everything. Bombs going off in my adopted city on a street I used to traverse every day. I’m still processing  the bombing and all that happened in the days after – me and millions of others. So, after today’s moment of silence I returned to the post I wrote on that day, a day that was already profound for me, even before 2:50pm.

A Different Kind of Marathon.

April 15. Boston Marathon Day. Tax Day. Halfway Point in Autism Acceptance Month.

SONY DSCI bailed on posting every day this month, obviously. Priorities change, and with so many people saying so many things about autism, if I am going to add to the noise it had better be worth it. But on this marathon day there is something to be said about the value of pacing yourself when facing the long haul of parenting. I’ve been following a thread online in which parents share their strategies for separating from their kids for personal time, shoring up their marriages, and finding ways to talk about things that aren’t autism (it’s harder than you think). That conversation follows a number of pieces I’ve read lately in the mainstream media where people without children feel the need to weigh in on the foibles of those who do have children. Too much time on your childless hands, Mr. Bruni? If people without kids are irked by people who talk about their kids a lot, imagine the pique in those who find themselves surrounded by the misplaced angst of parents struggling with sports team playing time or ivy league SAT requirements. And it’s not so much pique really as it is having absolutely nothing to add to such conversations. It makes a better listener and people watcher out of me, for sure, but as the years go by whatever skill I had for small talk sort of waxes and wanes with wherever we are with our boy. Sometimes it seems to have atrophied and I almost don’t trust myself at parent functions for my typical children anymore because the urge to say something truly inappropriate (but funny, I assure you) is almost overwhelming. It’s like the vegan invited to an event at a steakhouse – just because the parameters of your life are different you don’t get to ruin it for everyone else. If it bothers you that much, stay home, right? Wrong. Choose events wisely, but go, and bring your empathy with you.

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So, I left writing this post to do work things and then I checked back on the parenting thread I was talking about, and was validated and educated by what I read there. People have made some hard choices to keep balance in their lives and create independence for their children. It made me think, and so I went and sat in the rare spring sun to contemplate the long-term plan. Out of nowhere (kind of) appeared the boy. He wrapped his arms around my head, kissed it and said, “Are you worried about something?” He wedged himself into the chair with me, leaned his head on my shoulder, and twirled the hair at the nape of my neck with his fingers the same way he did as a toddler. I couldn’t answer him. We heard a door open – saved by the Dad, taking a break from work. We scrambled upstairs and while I crossed the room to talk to Dad, the boy looked past us out the window and pointed (now he points!):

“Baby foxes!” He spotted them – four in all – scampering about, camouflaged almost perfectly against the oak and maple leaves. We would have been too preoccupied to notice, but we found ourselves checking in on them all day as they wrestled and napped, waiting for Mom to come back to the den that sits just up the hill from our house.

He feels ahead of me, he sees beyond us. We have a lot of thinking to do.